Did everyone in ancient Israel agree on what their worship space—the temple—should be like?
The temple dedicated to YHWH is probably the most well-known building mentioned in the Bible. Since its purported site remains at the centre of Jerusalem and attracts thousands of visitors, it is no surprise descriptions of it still fascinate. The Hebrew Bible contains two notable passages depicting the temple: 1Kgs 6-8 and Ezek 40-48. The two share some similarities but differ in substantial ways.
First Kings describes a functioning temple, at the heart of a bustling Jerusalem, with many people coming and going. First Kings suggests a real, tangible place described by someone who has seen it. By contrast, Ezekiel speaks of a temple outside the city, with no humans in it, that appears to the prophet in a vision (Ezek 40:2). This temple defies reality.
The temple’s dimensions illustrate this too. 1Kgs 6:2 states succinctly the width, length, and height of the temple. Ezekiel spends two chapters giving the measurements of every part of the temple—but never the height of anything. Ezekiel’s temple can’t be built, only drawn on a flat surface.
The two also differ on who can enter. First Kings has priests working inside the temple and interacting with many people in the temple’s outer areas. Ezekiel allows no humans inside whatsoever. YHWH resides within the temple, behind a barrier that excludes humans, who might contaminate the temple. Even priests serve YHWH from a distance. Ezekiel—written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, which is attributed to improper worship of idols and the sun in the temple—requires such restrictions to maintain the purity of the temple. The two texts do share the belief that human conduct can defile the temple. First Kings thinks trained priests can manage that risk; Ezekiel concludes humans cannot be trusted to enter these sacred spaces again.
A memorable part of Ezekiel’s temple vision is a river that flows from the temple, heading east, growing wider and deeper, until it filters into the Dead Sea (Ezek 47:1-12). This feature is entirely absent from 1 Kings, but it still shows one place where Ezekiel and 1 Kings share a theological view. The river in Ezekiel flows into an arid region, but “everything will live where the river goes” (Ezek 47:9). The water transforms creation into a place of abundance. First Kings lacks a river but explains that the temple’s decorations include palm trees, flowers, pomegranates, and lilies. This horticultural imagery comes from a lush garden—such as the garden of Eden, one form of an ancient tradition of gardens as places where creation reaches its perfect state. First Kings makes an (implicit) argument that God dwells in a temple that reflects creation as it should be, like the garden of Eden. Ezekiel appropriates a different aspect of the garden tradition, namely, that the garden at creation has four rivers flowing from it (Gen 2:8-14), bringing life to the rest of the world. These seemingly unrelated images emerge from a shared theology, albeit in radically different ways. This comparison shows that between the two temples are real, but do indicate some shared theological ideas.